Henry V’s Distressful Bread — Thoughts for the Seder in Memory of my son Niot z”l

Haim Watzman

This is a Hebrew translation of my annual dvar Torah for Pesach in memory of my son Niot z”l, whom we lost ten years ago during Pesach. A pdf file of the Hebrew original, which appears in this week’s issue of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah sheet published by Oz Veshalom, the religious peace movement, can be downloaded here.

At the beginning of the Seder, before we begin the magid, the telling of the story of the exodus from Egypt, we perform a ritual called yahatz. We break, according to most customs, the middle of the three matzot that we have placed on the table along with the other signs of the holiday. We set the larger piece aside or conceal it so that it will serve after the meal as the afikoman.

At the end of the magid we make two blessings on the matzot that remain on the table—the two whole ones and the piece that remains of the middle one. According to one opinion (as in, for example, the commentary on the Haggadah of Rabbi Yitzhak Mirsky), the two blessings are intended for different combinations of these matzot. The hamotzi blessing, the one we use all year before eating bread and which on Shabbatot and holidays we make over two loaves, as part of the happiness of the occasion, is the blessing over the two whole matzot. The second blessing, al ahilat matzah, specific to the fulfilment of the command to eat matzah on the Seder night, is directed at one whole matzah and the broken matzah. The broken one represents the concept of lehem oni, usually translated into English as “the bread of affliction.”

This opinion reflects the duality of the precept of eating matzah at the Seder, a duality that finds expression in the Torah verse on which this observance is based (Deut. 16:3, King James Version):

Thou shalt eat no leavened bread with it; seven days shalt thou eat unleavened bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt in haste: that thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of thy life.

On the one hand, the matzah is supposed to remind us of the redemption from Egypt, but on the other, it is also “the bread of affliction,” the meaning of which the verse does not make clear. The Sages sought to explain the term in a variety of ways, but the most common is that adduced by Rashi: “lehem oni: it is the way of the poor to eat a piece of bread [rather than a full loaf], so it is necessary to be seen as breaking off a piece.” In other words, in this aspect the matzah is meant to symbolize not the redemption from Egypt but the slavery endured by the Israelites there. As slaves, our ancestors could not allow themselves to eat their fill of bread, but only a small piece.

These two meanings assigned to matzah seem to contradict each other, not only in theory but also in practice. When we observe the commandment of eating matzah on Seder night, how are we supposed to feel? Joyful at our redemption or miserable in our affliction?

The root of the problem is the assumption that lehem oni is bread that involves suffering. A slave, or any poor person, suffers when he eats it because there is not enough of it. He eats but remains hungry. But is that really the only way to understand it?

Another way of looking at it can be found in an unexpected source—Shakespeare’s play Henry V. At the opening of Act IV, King Henry is awaiting a decisive and difficult battle against the French, who have the advantage over him and his army. Henry stands alone and meditates on the responsibility that lies on the shoulders of kings. A slave, he says, can slumber peacefully on his simple, hard bed, but a king’s sleep is troubled even though his bed is soft and finely-appointed:

Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill’d and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm’d with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night
Sleeps in Elysium …

According to King Henry, in Shakespeare’s words, the indigent slave not only sleeps well but also eats his fill. His days are harsh, but the night is his refuge, a sort of paradise. His consumption of his distressful bread marks the transition between the two.

I do not know if Shakespeare, when he used the words “distressful bread,” had in mind the lehem oni of the Torah. Notably, the new JPS translation does not render the Hebrew term as “bread of affliction.” It uses the same term Shakespeare does: “bread of distress.” And in an unpublished Hebrew translation of Henry V by the director and professor of theater Avraham Oz, which he was kind enough to make available to me, he translates Shakespeare’s “distressful bread” as lehem oni.

Shakespeare’s distinction between the slave’s experience of his day and of his night connects with the story of the redemption from Egypt, which occurs on the cusp of night and day. The final plague, the slaughter of the first-born, from which the Israelites are saved, occurs at midnight. Pharaoh sends them away and they find themselves facing a different sort of morning, one unlike any they have known. Up to this point they awakened from their slumber to a day of hard labor; on this morning they face a new world and a new sense of time, a journey toward freedom in their own land. Their bellies are still filled with the bread they ate the previous night, and they have no time to properly prepare the coming day’s bread, which does not have time to rise.

But this new morning is frightening. In slavery, they could somehow make it through their day of affliction because they know that, when the sun set, they would be left to themselves to eat and sleep. On this day, the day they leave Egypt, they face uncertainty. They do not know whether, when night comes, they will be able to eat and sleep.

According to Rashi, lehem oni causes affliction because there is not enough of it to satisfy the slave’s hunger. King Henry’s distressful bread is eaten at the end of a day of affliction, but in fact signifies a moment of transition, from the oppressive day into the relative serenity of night. In other words, it harks not back to the day of suffering but marks a threshold—just as the Pesach sacrifice does, when the Israelite slaves smear its blood on their doorposts to shield them from death in their transition from slavery to freedom.

Their lehem oni kept them alive through generations of bondage, not simply by filling their bellies but also by marking a daily shift from oppression by their overlords into the respite of the night. It was, in a sense, a foreshadowing of the Pesach sacrifice and the redemption. Each evening, it granted each slave a vital small-scale liberation from captivity, without which they could not have survived.

In other words, the matzah that we break before telling the story of the redemption, and which we eat ritually after telling the story, is meant to make us feel not so much the agony of slavery or the joy of redemption, but that moment on the cusp between them, a moment of stepping into a way of life that, if it were entirely new and unknown, would be so terrifying as to deter the slaves from desiring freedom. But the distressful bread they had eaten at nightfall throughout the days of their bondage had given them a taste of that freedom, and had promised that an even greater freedom was possible. It gave them the courage to cross the threshold.

Niot’s memory helps Israeli teenagers with learning difficulties through The Niot Project .

Please make a donation to enable us to continue to provide this help while schools are closed because of the current pandemic.

US donors can make a tax deductible donation through American Friends of Kidum. Please choose the option to direct your donation and choose the Niot Project from the dropdown menu.

Previous thoughts on Pesach in memory of Niot:

How Should We Tell the Story? (2020)

The Four Slaves (2019)

The Third Child (2018)

Who Walks In? (2017)

The Missing Center (2016)

The Question of Questions (2015)

The Bitterness of Egypt (2012)